First of all, bioelectronix must be distinguished from bioelectronics; bioelectronics is the emerging science of biomedical technology centred around such devices as ‘lab on a chip’ and implantable neural interfaces. Complex and expensive technologies from the closely guarded and secret world of cutting edge scientific research. Bioelectronix, on the other hand, is the appropriation and development by artists of certain aspects of these technologies in an (generally) open-source and (generally) do-it-yourself environment. Relatively cheap and simple technologies which can be shared, improved and distributed through an open network of users and enthusiasts.
Without wanting to create a manifesto, because Hackteria isn’t really about writing manifestos, it is necessary to try and define what bioelectronix actually is and where it has come from. Bioelectronix has emerged out of various artistic disciplines such as bio-art, software-art and robotic-art; although the philosophy is less to do with defining an approach and therefore the work which must come out of it, and more to do with an open sharing of ideas, opinions and practical techniques to allow artists to experiment freely and economically with a range of cutting edge and topical tools and techniques.
Bioelectronix of some form or other has been practiced by various artists, each with their own approach, style and interpretation for a number of years now, and we make no claims to inventing the ‘artform’. Despite a wide ranging application of tools, technologies and conceptual approaches the common factor of the works that are most appropriate to the Hackteria biolectronix idea is that none explicitly or directly dicuss the notion of the cyborg. That is to say that none are solely about the augmentation of an organic element through the use of technology, but more the attempt to create a situation where organic and machinic, natural and artificial can begin to form relationships and methods with which to share and transform information and behaviours.
Bioelectronix can be much simpler still. Works involving bioelectronix can be simple experiments in which we can explore possible relationships between ubiquitous life and ubiquitous technology. Maybe we employ the technology to enable us to simply view or sense organisms which are usually too small to see with the naked eye. Or we could carry out simple processes of interaction allowing us to share in some way the physical or experential world of other life forms. Or maybe we just want to see ‘what happens if…’.
Generally speaking, what we are trying to do with bioelectronix is to get data or information into or out of an organic entity. Whether we do this purely by constructing a device with which to observe the organism (a webcam microscope, for example) or whether we are trying to induce and detect change on a cellular or metabolic level is pretty much irrelevent. The fact that we are coupling the organic and the electronic is the key issue, the fact that we are working with the ubiquitous life forms of bacteria, protozoa or insects alongside the ubiquitous technology of electricity and all the possibilities for communication and transformation it offers. But here we must emphasise that we are not aiming to recreate the fictional work of Dr Frankenstein. Ours is a gentler inquiry into the many intrguing aspects of a mostly invisible or hidden world and a comment and a critique on our ongoing and rapidly changing relationships with the natural world due to the assimilation of technology into all aspects of our lives.
Despite this, the ethics of each practitioner of bioelectronix must be his or her own. We each have our own views on how we should treat the rest of the animal kingdom, and we each put into practice our own methodologies to allow us to reflect those ethical views. The practice of bioelectronix may lead us to a point where we feel we need to reappraise and review those ethics. And maybe this practice will lead us to reflect in new and different ways the way we use technology, how we relate to the animal kingdom and how we appreciate the advantages of science which has been built on techniques similar to these.
Here are some examples of artistic projects which have featured elements of bioelectronix practice (whether they know it or not).
MEART – the semi-living artist
A direct interface between electronics and living matter.
MEART is an installation which embodies a robotic artist which is designed to draw portraits of those who sit in front of it. The work was created by the Symbiotica resesarch group and has a “brain” consisting of cultured nerve cells from a rat’s brain. This brain grows and lives in a neuro-engineering lab,while its “body”, a robotic drawing arm that is capable of producing two-dimensional drawings, will reside in the exhibition space. The “brain” and the “body” will communicate in real time with each other for the duration of the exhibition.
Therefore MEART is formed from three component parts: the ‘wetware’ – neurons from embryonic rat cortex grown over a Multi Electrode Array, the ‘hardware’ – the robotic drawing arm and the ’software’ – that interfaces between the wetware and the hardware.
MEART sees its subject the outside world through a camera that acts as its eyes. Using the neurons that serve for its brain it has the ability to process what it sees and can react accordingly through the robotic drawing arm that acts as its body. The Internet functions as its nervous system.
MEART is an installation which embodies a robotic artist which is designed to draw portraits of those who sit in front of it. The work was created by the Symbiotica resesarch group and has a “brain” consisting of cultured nerve cells from a rat’s brain. This brain grows and lives in a neuro-engineering lab,while its “body”, a robotic drawing arm that is capable of producing two-dimensional drawings, will reside in the exhibition space. The “brain” and the “body” will communicate in real time with each other for the duration of the exhibition. Therefore MEART is formed from three component parts: the ‘wetware’ – neurons from embryonic rat cortex grown over a Multi Electrode Array, the ‘hardware’ – the robotic drawing arm and the ’software’ – that interfaces between the wetware and the hardware. MEART sees its subject the outside world through a camera that acts as its eyes. Using the neurons that serve for its brain it has the ability to process what it sees and can react accordingly through the robotic drawing arm that acts as its body. The Internet functions as its nervous system.
Garnet Hertz – “Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot”
An insect controls the movement of robot.
Garnet Hertz’s “Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot” uses the movements of a live insect – a giant Madagascan cockroach – to physically drive a 3 wheeled robot. The robot is a simple distance sensing platform similar to those used in numerous robotics labs around the world. However, in this instance the information between the distance sensors and the robot drive units is interupted and reprocessed by the cockroach. Exploiting the cockroach’s natural aversion to bright light the sensor will trigger a corresponding bank of LEDs in the insect’s field of vision. The cockroach will instinctively attempt to scuttle away, thus transforming its movements into manipulation of the trackball which in turn steers the robot.
The work inverts some ideas of the science of biomimetics, where cockroaches are admired for their navigational logic, and shuns imitation in favour of using the animal itself. The computational is replaced with the bioligical as where we would normally expect to find a microcontroller we find a living insect.
Ken Rinaldo – Augmented Fish Reality
Fish equipped to move and navigate their own environments
Augmented Fish Reality is an interactive installation of five rolling robotic fish-bowl sculptures designed to explore interspecies and transpecies communication. Each of the sculptures houses one male siamese fighting fish (Betta Splendons) and exploits their intelligent and territorial behaviour to steer it around the space. These fish have excellent vision both in and out of water and are able to visually locate another of their species over some distance, and males will square up to each other and even fight ferociously to defend a territory.
Each of the bowls is fitted with four proximity sensors allowing the fish to steer its environment in the direction in which it is swimming, thus it is able to steer itself towards encounters with other fish in the vicinity as well as interact with people within the space.
The work, as with many others, brings to question the nature of technology and its replication of certain biological functions. Do we need to use microcontrollers and microprocessors when certain animals can carry out the same task?
Andy Gracie – Autoinducer_Ph-1
Life support system establish between real and virtual bacteria
Autoinducer_Ph-1 (cross cultural chemistry) exploits a traditional rice cultivation technique from SE Asia where Azolla is grown in large quantities and used as an organic, nitrogen rich fertilizer in the rice paddies. A naturally occuring symbiosis between the water fern Azolla and the cyanobacteria Anabaena is reworked to force a real and a synthetic culture of bacterial cells to exhibit symbiotic behaviours.
Outcomes of this complex relationship and its proximity to symbiotic or parasitic characteristics determine the behaviours of the robotic rice farming system that forms the physical bulk of the installation. The installation loops biological, electro-robotic and computing processes together in a literally fertile interaction where the “primal soup” aspect of the Anabaena and Azolla cultures, and fragility of the young rice shoots, contrast strikingly with the computer-generated artificial chemistry molecules of the GCS.
Andy Gracie – Deep Data (extract)
Connections between microbes and deep space environments
A current functioning prototype of one aspect of the project is currently being shown as Deep Data (extract). This prototype focuses on receiving and recreating magnetic field data from the Pioneer and Voyager probes within cultures of tardigrades, a microscopic species being used for current space and astrobiological research.
A specially designed culture vessel is used to house the organisms, electromagnets, a hall sensor and LEDs. This unique observation device is housed within an inverted biological microscope with connected video camera. The image from the camera is combined with graphical feedback from the hall sensor to form the visual display of the work. Sonic feedback in the form of pitch shifting natural radio emissions from Jupiter offers an aural sense of the strengths of the fluctuating magnetic fields within the observation vessel.
This project is based on early experiments in sound recording in which a water jet was used to amplify and record sound to a wax cylinder. In this instance the artist uses a laser to amplify & transmit minute inaudible sounds, to make audible the sound of light through modulation and reflection. By using a modified laser projected through a droplet of fluid – a ‘Fluid lens’ – it is possible to create a sensitive microphone. If the lens contains microscopic creatures, their movements will generate sound by creating distortions with the movement of their body and antennas.
In this example live daphnia (water fleas) are placed in the water droplet, their heartbeats can be picked up as a signal and used as a beat, a timer, a metronome…